Hillary Clinton signals support for marriage equality and Obamacare as she concludes Iowa trip
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks on July 25, 2014 in the Bronx borough of New York City (AFP)

Democratic presidential candidate ticks off several core liberal issues including low wages, gay marriage and healthcare reform in final day of successful road trip

Hillary Clinton headed out of Iowa on Wednesday -- by plane this time, not in a Scooby-Doo van -- at the end of a two-day trip that signaled a new beginning for the veteran politician and sounded a clarion call to a legion of voters on the left of the Democratic party who remain skeptical of her progressive credentials.

In an hour-long “conversation” with small-business leaders in Norwalk, a suburb of capital city Des Moines, Clinton ticked off several core issues that now ignite liberals. She pledged to take on low wages, unequal pay for women and immigration reform, as well as tackle an economic deck that she said was “still stacked in favor of those at the top” – and even the US supreme court on marriage equality.

Above all, the former secretary of state attached her name firmly to Barack Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, apparently unperturbed that Republicans intend to make Obamacare a major lever of their attack against the eventual Democratic nominee – whomever that will be – in the 2016 presidential election.

“I am committed to building on what works in the Act because 16 million people now have insurance who didn’t have it,” she said.

Clinton delivered her remarks inside a cooling shed at a fruit distribution firm in Norwalk, surrounded by ripening objects -- tomatoes on one side of her, members of the American media on the other. She appeared to be relaxing into the new role of a low-key candidate of the left, as high on domestic street cred as diplomatic frequent-flier miles, which Team Clinton has carefully built up around her since a formal campaign launch on Sunday.

On display from take two of Candidate Clinton was much smiling, direct eye contact, nodding of the head and ostentatious humility: “I am so very grateful to you,” she told a table of small-business owners. The change in tone was significant, as the last time she hit the presidential trail in Iowa, in 2008, Clinton was accused of being distant and aloof.

She will leave the critical starter-gun state, which will anoint its preferred nominees for both main parties in early January before any other gets to choose, in a confident mood. Clinton had laid down the most tentative of road maps to her coming campaign and left without giving the scrambling press any major gaffes.

She had also avoided giving even the slightest whiff of inevitability, seen as a fatal flaw in her failed 2008 campaign. That was a particularly impressive achievement, political watchers agreed, given that, in the absence of any official opponents in her party, Clinton’s nomination does currently appear inevitable.

As part of the tight choreography of the Iowa trip, expected to be followed with a stop back home in New York before heading up to New Hampshire to cross paths with her Republican rivals, Clinton’s staff released a statement – far away from Iowa – indicating a sharp change of position from the candidate on same-sex marriage.

“Hillary Clinton supports marriage equality and hopes the Supreme Court will come down on the side of same-sex couples being guaranteed that constitutional right,” read the statement, confirmed to the Guardian. The high court will hear oral arguments on gay marriage in less than two weeks, with the potential for a historic ruling that makes it legal across the nation.

Previously, Clinton had said she believed the issue was best left to individual states to decide. Clinton offered a hint of a looming policy shift in her campaign launch video on Sunday, which included a gay couple planning for their wedding. They have since invited her.

When a reporter asked Clinton about her marriage flip-flop at the end of Wednesday’s Norwalk event, she ignored the question and walked out of the fruit shed.

Clinton delivers ‘very progressive speech’ at state capitol

After her gathering with small-business owners before the cameras, Clinton held a closed-door meeting with Democratic members of the Iowa general assembly at the state capitol. She gave what one attendee described to the Guardian as “a very progressive speech”, re-emphasizing her liberal talking points on immigration reform and getting money out of politics but also “listening a lot and being humble”.

“She was introduced and received more as the nominee” than as a candidate, said the attendee, who asked to remain anonymous – and noted that former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, seen as Clinton’s most legitimate challenger from the left, did not get the same kind of attention when he spoke to Democratic legislators just a week ago.

Clinton’s early comments on healthcare reform were prompted by Brendan Comito, one of three brothers who own and run Capital City Fruit company. He complained that his business was struggling under the burden of rapidly rising health insurance premiums that had shot up 13% in a year.

That gave an opening to the former US senator and secretary of state to plant her flag on the Obamacare lawn at the same time as indicating she was open to improving it. “There are problems with [the health law] which still have to be addressed to make healthcare truly affordable,” she said.

She went on: “We’ve learned a lot in the past few years, but we still have to meet the challenges.”

Clinton said she wanted to make prescription drugs cheaper in the US, and that she was looking into the idea of allowing people to shop across state lines to buy cheaper health insurance. Speaking words that are more frequently heard emanating from the mouths of Republicans, she said: “If we are going to have a free-market system, then they must be able to compete. There’s not as much competition in a lot of states – including this one.”

Wednesday’s focus on small business formed part of a carefully choreographed roll-out of Clinton’s candidacy between the two-minute video on Sunday and the unveiling of four priority areas on Tuesday. (Monday was reserved for that Scooby-Doo road trip which garnered much – and largely favorable – publicity, Chipotle surveillance footage and all.)

The most eye-catching of Clinton’s four nascent manifesto areas was, as with her appearance in Monticello on Tuesday, a pledge to take “unaccountable” money out of the electoral system. That commitment to address the mountain of “dark money” that has entered politics since the supreme court lifted restrictions on political spending by corporations in 2010 took observers by surprise.

It was a classic act of Clinton politics: unexpected, bold and, many pundits and political rivals suspect, never going to happen. It was also entirely contrary to Clinton’s own fortunes: she has set herself a target of raising some $1bn in this race, while Super Pacs and unions supporting her bid for the White House could raise an additional $2 billion in what is certain to be the most expensive presidential campaign ever mounted. Chris Christie, in dueling remarks in New Hampshire on Wednesday, all but rolled his eyes.

“It’s classic politician-speak,” he said.

Voters still await finer points of candidacy

Clinton emphasized three more ambitions throughout the Iowa tour: reviving the economy for the future, helping families and communities, and protecting the US from threats “that we see and the ones that are on the horizon”. She concentrated on the economy at Capital City Fruit, where she began by lamenting that the US had fallen to 46th in the world in terms of how easy it is to start a new business.

“We need to be No 1 again,” she said. “For many decades, it was taken for granted that we would be, but it’s become more expensive with more red tape, unnecessary regulation, exacerbated by the Great Recession.”

In dialogue with the six business owners who formed her “roundtable”, Clinton promised to keep pushing for pay equality for women. She also pledged to fight against low pay, citing Henry Ford, who she said “understood all those years ago that that people weren’t going to buy his cars if they couldn’t afford it”.

On immigration, Clinton said the US was missing out on economic opportunities by “pushing people away who want to work. We are saying to people who want the same dreams and aspirations and willingness to work hard just as our families did, ‘No, we are not going to make it easy you’, and that’s a very unfortunate outcome for all of us.”

It was the stuff of paint-brush strokes, not policy papers, though she promised many more polished details in the weeks ahead. Voters -- even the liberal ones who helped Obama build a grassroots army -- are clamoring for the finer points of a progressive candidacy.

But over two days in Iowa, Clinton put down some markers, skirted several pitfalls, and set her campaign on a solid path that may make other potential challengers hesitate.

“I’m going to be in Iowa a lot,” she said.

Additional reporting by Ben Jacobs